The spy’s nest
A new book lifts the veil on just how extensive KGB operations were in India during the Cold War and creates a storm in political circles. How credible are the claims?
India as a spymaster’s Disneyland? So says a new book by a former KGB defector and his co-author.
The Russian agency declared India as “the model of KGB infiltration of a Third World government” with “scores of sources throughout the Indian government, in intelligence, counter-intelligence, defence and foreign ministries, the police …”
The agency had so many agents and sources that then KGB chief Yuri Andropov turned down an offer by an Indian cabinet minister for a payment of $50,000 in exchange for information. Suitcases of cash were sent to then prime minister Indira Gandhi for her party’s war chest, not to mention vast sums of money funnelled to the CPI.
All this and much more is alleged in two chapters of The Mitrokhin Archive II, due for publication in India next month. Extracts, however, appeared in the press, leading to a blizzard of denials and protestations from the Congress and the Left.
Their injured innocence has failed to dent the credibility of the book and its intriguing contents. When The Mitrokhin Archive was published in 1999, the book created a tsunami in western intelligence circles because of the authoritativeness and detailed information copied from thousands of KGB files.
More fascinating was the story of the author, Vasili Mitrokhin. A senior KGB archival officer, he defected to Britain in 1992, bringing with him a treasure trove of top secret KGB documents he had secreted over the years. His defection was hailed as one of the great intelligence coups of the 20th century and his archival material was confirmed as genuine by the CIA and MI5. Mitrokhin died last year.
The Mitrokhin Archive II written by Vasili Mitrokhin
The first book was on KGB operations in Europe and the US. The sequel, also co-authored by Christopher Andrew, a leading scholar on intelligence matters, focuses on KGB penetration in other parts of the world, including India. The book’s thesis is that the Soviet Union decided the Third World was the arena in which it could win the Cold War by proxy.
Two chapters titled The Special Relationship with India detail the scale of KGB operations in India and the extent of the penetration. Judging by the contents, both were pretty successful.
The book claims that the maximum operational effort by the KGB in a Third World country during the Cold War was in India and that the number of KGB agents in India during the
1970s was the largest outside the Soviet Union. The more sensational disclosures include:
- Indira Gandhi, codenamed VANO by the KGB,was sent suitcases of money meant for the Congress coffers. On one occasion, a secret gift of Rs 2 million from the Politburo to the Congress(R) was personally delivered by the KGB head in India Leonid Shebarshin. Another million rupees were given on the same occasion to a newspaper supporting Mrs Gandhi.
- In 1978, the KGB was running over 30 agents in India, 10 of whom were Indian intelligence officers.
- In 1977, KGB files identified 21 non communist politicians (four union ministers) whose election campaigns were subsidised by the KGB.
- The CPI was funded in many ways, including transfer of money through car windows on Delhi roads.
- In 1959, CPI general-secretary Ajoy Ghosh agreed on a plan to found an import-export business for trade with the Soviet bloc. In little more than a decade its annual profits grew to over Rs 3 million.
- During 1975, a total of 10.6 million roubles was spent on active measures in India designed to strengthen the support for Mrs Gandhi and undermine her political opponents.
- Krishna Menon, as defence minister, was persuaded to buy Soviet MiGs and not British Lightnings. His election campaigns in 1962 and 1967 were funded by the KGB.
- By 1973, the KGB had 10 Indian newspapers on its payroll plus a press agency. During 1975 the KGB planted 5,510 articles in Indian newspapers.
- Promode Dasgupta, the communist stalwart,wasidentifiedby theKGB asan Intelligence Bureau (IB) informant in the Indian communist movement.
The question being raised in India is whether the authors have sexed up the spy story. CPI General-Secretary A.B.Bardhan says, “It is a slander.” The truth is that there have been any number of sources and books, including the Cold War International History Project in Washington, which detailed the KGB penetration in India.
THE GREAT BEAR HUG: Mrs Indira Gandhi with Leonid Brezhnev in Delhi
Two earlier memoirs of KGB officials, including Shebarshin, former KGB resident in Delhi, also detailed its operations in India. M.K. Dhar, former IB director, in his book Open Secrets, wrote that the IB had succeeded in “identifying four Union ministers (in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet) and over two dozen MPs who were on the KGB payroll”.
He went on to state that “the most surprising area of KGB penetration was the Defence Ministry and those layers of the armed forces which were responsible for military procurement”. Andrew told INDIA TODAY much the same (see interview).
The main objections to the latest revelations concern Mrs Gandhi and the money allegedly paid to her by the Soviets. Here again, the book states, “The primeminister is unlikely to have paid close attention to the dubious origins of some of the funds which went into the Congress coffers.
|“Forgery is impossible”
TOUGH POSTURE: Morarji Desai in Moscow
Christopher Andrew is considered one of the world’s leading intelligence scholars. Currently professor of Contemporary History at Cambridge University, he spoke to VIJAY RANA. Excerpts.
Q. How credible is the book?
Q. The reaction from India?
Q. But there are no names.
Q. The spin being given in India is that KGB agents were exaggerating their exploits.
This was largely left to her principal fund raiser L.N. Mishra, who-though she doubtless did not realise it-also accepted Soviet money.” In fact, claims about Mrs Gandhi accepting money were also made by former US ambassador to India Daniel Moynihan.
He wrote in his memoir A Dangerous Place: “We had twice interfered in Indian politics to the extent of providing money to a political party. Both times the money was given to the Congress party,which had asked for it. Once it was given to Mrs Gandhi herself.”
What is suggested is that these were funds meant for the party and not for her personally, but Congress sycophants have overreacted in assuming the allegation is to do with Mrs Gandhi’s personal integrity. “She always kept herself meticulously out of political funding of any kind,” says V.C. Shukla, former minister and Congress veteran.
What does come across clearly is the book’s premise that “the openness of India’s democracy combined with the streak of corruption through its media and political system provided numerous opportunities for Soviet intelligence”.
KGB operations in India expanded rapidly in the ’50s and ’60s, and not just within Indian borders. The book reveals that an Indian diplomat, codenamed PROKHOR, in the embassy in Moscow was recruited via the classic honey trap, compromised by a female KGB agent with the delicious code name of NEVEROVA. PROKHOR provided the agency with the embassy codebook and other material and was paid Rs 4,000 a month. Two other diplomats were also compromised.
Soviet efforts were clearly helped by India’s anti-American policy at the time and the fact that strategically, American reliance on Pakistan as a counterweight to Soviet influence in India, pushed Delhi into Moscow’s orbit. The book details how the then defence minister Krishna Menon, openly anti-American, was backed by the KGB on the assumption that he would succeed Nehru, a prospect that ended with the Chinese invasion in 1962.
The KGB then set out to woo Mrs Gandhi. Khrushchev presented her with a mink coat on her first solo visit to Moscow (Mrs Gandhi had earlier criticised an ambassador’s wife for accepting a similar gift) and the KGB surrounded her with “handsome, attentive male admirers”.
Apart from funding the CPI and other leftwing groups during the 1967 elections, the agency also funded several Congress candidates, including an “extremely influential” minister codenamed ABAD. The KGB was also helped by India’s decision, started in Menon’s time, of getting almost all its arms requirements from Moscow, which began arriving by the early ’70s, as then Delhi’s KGB resident head Shebarshin noted in the files, “in an endless stream”.
Not that the KGB was the only agency active in India. Another noting by Oleg Kalugin, former KGB major-general, says, “It seemed like the entire country was for sale: the KGB and the CIA had deeply penetrated the Indian government.”
Not just the government. The book alleges that the KGB had recruited one of India’s most influential journalists, codenamed NOK. His anti-US articles were considered a major coup in the Lubyanka. However, they had other ways of stoking anti-US sentiments. In 1969, according to The Mitrokhin Archives, Andropov informed the Politburo in Moscow that they could “organise a demonstration of up to 20,000 Muslims in front of the US embassy in Delhi and that it would cost Rs 5,000. I request consideration.” Leonid Brezhnev wrote, “Agreed on Andropov’s request.”
Where the KGB seems to exaggerate about its coups in India is in its conviction, noted in the archives, that they were able to influence Mrs Gandhi’s anti-US policy. Certainly, Mrs Gandhi’s anti-Americanism is a matter of public record. The signing of the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty in 1971 was the icing on the bilateral cake. The fact is that it was strategic rather than ideological reasons that dictated Mrs Gandhi’s pro-Soviet foreign policy.
The end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union doused the mutual ardour along with the KGB’s activities in India, which means that the book has more historical value than any contemporary significance.
The book does have some other intriguing facts that have not been publicised. The KGB was keen to alter Sanjay Gandhi’s open distrust of socialism. The book says they recruited a close friend of his code named PURI. The book also admits that the KGB tended to exaggerate its influence. The KGB miscalculated the post-Emergency election of 1977 too and failed to factor in the possibility of Indira losing by a landslide to the KGB’s bete noire Morarji Desai.
The fact remains that in the contemporary context, the book has little significance. All the major players mentioned in the book are dead and many are identified only by their codenames. The Cold War is history, the Soviet Union no longer exists and Indo-US relations are on a high. Globally, the strategic scenario has changed dramatically.
In that sense, the screams of anguish from the Indian political establishment are a knee-jerk reaction, exaggerated and misinformed, as some KGB activities in India were. This book ismorecloak than dagger, but try telling that to Indian politicians.